SOCIALISTS argue for people to break with the Labour Party. Yet at the same time they spend a lot of time seeking to work alongside Labour Party members. Why should we campaign with Labour Party MPs and councillors to defend council housing when it is the Labour Party that is attempting to push through privatisation?
That apparent contradiction is not a result of mistaken logic. It is built into trying to develop a united mass opposition to capitalism. The Marxist movement has often had to grapple with how to work alongside people over particular issues while disagreeing over fundamental questions In the years following the 1917 Russian Revolution the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, which successfully led the revolution, developed the theory of the united front to deal with this contradiction.
A wave of revolutionary struggle had swept Europe after the 1917 revolution, but none had been successful in overturning the old order. In many European countries revolutionary socialists had split with the old Labour-style parties to form new Communist parties. They took their inspiration from events in Russia. These parties had made a principled break with reformist politics-the idea of working within the confines of capitalism to make it less savage rather than overthrowing it.
Those ideas had led to the old parties supporting capitalist savagery-the slaughter of the First World War. The ruling class had managed to withstand the post-war revolutionary wave by the early 1920s. Revolutionaries had to operate when the vast majority of workers still supported the reformist, Labour-type parties.
Bolshevik leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky were terrified that the Communist parties were in danger of becoming sects, cut off from the mass of workers. Even in countries where the Communist parties were mass organisations, such as Germany and France, revolutionaries represented only a minority of the working class.
Revolutionaries had to avoid being irrelevant. That meant finding ways of reaching out to the large number of workers who still had faith in reforming the system. Trotsky argued that the Communist parties had to fight alongside workers who held reformist ideas over specific issues. They included the defence of trade unions or demanding higher wages.
In 1922 the Communist International grouping of revolutionary socialists spelt out what it meant by this 'united front' tactic. It was 'simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups, and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interest of the working class'.
An instrument of this struggle
TROTSKY ALSO gave an answer to those revolutionaries who objected to working with reformist parties they had broken with:
'But, after all, didn't we split with them? Yes, because we disagree with them on fundamental questions of the working class movement. And yet we seek agreement with them? Yes, in those cases where the masses that follow them are ready to engage in joint struggle together with the masses that follow us and when they, the reformists, are to a lesser or greater degree compelled to become an instrument of this struggle.'
The united front was an attempt to bridge the gap between the revolutionary party and the working class. This did not mean the united front was a trick to dupe workers into joining the Communist parties. Rather it stemmed from the need of workers to unite if they were to successfully fight capitalism. Trotsky later argued:
'To fight, the working class must have unity in its ranks. This holds true for partial economic conflicts, within the walls of a single factory, as well as for such 'national' political battles as the one to repel fascism. Consequently the tactic of the united front is not something accidental and artificial-a cunning manoeuvre. It originates, entirely and wholly, in the objective conditions governing the development of the proletariat.'
He saw the united front as a way of organising around a specific set of demands. He argued that it would be counterproductive to insist that workers sign up to general revolutionary ideas in order to take part. Instead there should be unity around specific demands. Trotsky was writing mainly about the unity between followers of the mass Communist parties (hundreds of thousands of workers) and reformist parties (several millions of workers).
Trotsky appealed, tragically unsuccessfully, to the Communist Party to form such a united front with the Social Democratic Party in Germany to stop the Nazis in the 1930s. That approach is needed in France today. The combined vote of the revolutionary left in the presidential election was 11 percent.
That plus the votes of the Socialist Party (equivalent to the Labour Party in Britain) and its allies in government comes to one in three voters. If the supporters of all these parties were mobilised against Le Pen it would crush him.
THE SAME method applies where smaller forces or just sections of the reformist parties are involved.
The Stop the War Coalition, for example, involves revolutionaries, peace activists, Labour Party members, Socialist Alliance supporters, Muslims, Christians and many others.
They have built a vibrant and growing movement around straightforward demands on which all participants can agree-stop the war in Afghanistan, don't attack Iraq. In the north west of England, where the Nazis pose a real threat in the local elections, the 'Don't Vote Nazi' campaign involves Labour Party members, revolutionaries, community activists, anti-racist activists and many more. Its strength lies in the single slogan against the Nazis around which all can unite.
These campaigns rest on the joint activity of rank and file activists. But that doesn't mean socialists can just ignore leading figures in the trade unions, Labour MPs and others who still have a large following of workers. The involvement of a Labour MP, local Labour councillors and the leaders of unions such as Unison strengthened the recent victorious campaign against council housing privatisation in Birmingham.
Their participation meant the active involvement of far more Labour voters and trade unionists than could have been mobilised by socialists alone. Trotsky made the point, 'If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over the reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. 'But then the very question of the united front would not exist in the present form.'
ALTHOUGH revolutionaries and reformists work side by side in the united front, this does not mean revolutionaries should drop their criticism of reformist leaders and politics. On the contrary, it is essential that revolutionaries retain their political and organisational independence.
Trotsky argued, 'If the Communist Party had not broken drastically and irrevocably with the reformists, it could not have taken the first steps on the road to revolution. It would have forever remained a parliamentary safety valve attached to the capitalist state.'
Revolutionaries have to develop their own theories and organisation, but this is not an end in itself. They have to try and convince others who have the same or similar goals. That doesn't mean preaching or lecturing to other workers, but proposing action and ideas that can take the struggle forward. As Trotsky put it, 'It is precisely in the course of the struggle that broad masses must learn from experience that revolutionaries fight better than others, that we are more audacious and resolute.'
Revolutionary socialists play a crucial role both in initiating the united front and in being a driving force in its activity and organisation. In doing so they seek to win the immediate battle and also to show that their ideas and methods offer a way to challenge capitalism as a whole. That means there is no conflict between revolutionaries being at the forefront of building the biggest possible unity over particular issues, and at the same time trying to win people to revolutionary ideas.
The stronger the presence of revolutionary socialists in a united front, the more dynamic and successful it can be in achieving its aims. Revolutionaries do not restrict themselves to fighting over particular issues. They fight on every front, seeking maximum unity on each and drawing the links between the different issues.
Trotsky's writings on the united front against the Nazis are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop
Fascism, Stalinism and the United Front
Special offer - £4.95 Phone Bookmarks on 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com